Thursday, August 30, 2007

Training an Army

Brian Williams on tonight's NBC news reported on a situation that goes to prove what I've been saying about Iraq for years now. The report, from Richard Engel, is about the Kurdish region of Iraq, more properly called Kurdistan. The people there want a separate country, because they are not Arabs and they don't consider themselves Iraqis. They have a strong sense of national identity and a strong loyalty to the Free Kurdistan cause.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan has been allowed to have its own army, called the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga actually believe in the cause for which they are fighting, and their loyalty is straightforward and undivided--they want a free and peaceful homeland.

What I've been saying is that it doesn't take months and months, nay years and years, to train an army to "stand up" if in fact the soldiers want to stand up for what you're asking them to stand up for. The reason we can't get "Iraqis to stand up so that we can stand down" is that the people we're trying to stand up are not interested in whatever agenda it is that we're trying to "train" them for. It hasn't taken the "insurgents" (whoever they are) long to train their men and put a backbone in them. And it also hasn't been difficult to get the Kurdish army, protecting Kurdish people, to acquit themselves like men and to provide real security for their own people.

This should be a sign to us that whatever the hell it is we're trying to "train" the Iraqi police and army to do, they don't want to do it, and therefore we will never succeed in "training" them to want to.

We train soldiers and Marines in something like 6 months. It's easy to do, because they come in wanting to be U. S. soldiers and Marines, because they actually believe in what they are being taught.

Apparently what is going on in Iraq is something else, some kind of passive aggressive resistance by the "trainees," who want a paycheck maybe, a job maybe, but who deep down simply don't buy what it is we're selling. So they vote with their backbone, by collapsing every time the trainers' backs are turned.

The Iraqi politicians don't want the program we're pushing on them either, or they wouldn't all be on vacation or simply absent.

So we've done what at least some, maybe even most, Iraqis wanted, which is to remove Saddam. And now whatever we thought was in it for us, they have no intention of giving us. So we either raise the war to a whole new level, basically forcing our positions upon a conquered people, or we leave. Like they used to say about Vietnam, declare victory and go home No WMDs, no more Saddam, job done!

We will only find out what all those half-trained Iraqi soldiers really believe in and want when we see what they're willing to die for. And it sure as hell ain't for us. Maybe it will be to keep the Kurds out of Kirkuk. Maybe it will be to keep Iran out of Baghdad. We'll never know till we get out of the way and let them stand up on their own two feet, or slink down on their own asses.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mother Teresa's lost faith

Mother Teresa's letters-- in which she apparently confides that she had no sense of God's presence, no feeling of faith or consolation, no assurance of the reality of God or heaven or the human soul--are about to be published. I had heard previously that this was the case for her, but it seems that the length and depth of this "dark night" is a bit of a shock to almost everyone.

It is not to me. And I think it is real evidence that she is a saint, by which I mean an enlightened person, one who has actually reached union with God, or spiritual marriage as it is called in the Catholic tradition. Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and most familiar to me, Saint Therese of Lisieux, all felt this emptiness and silence. Buddhists would understand it better, perhaps, as the end of the ego and of the sense of separation between one's self and what one understands as God.

I think that the great secret of mystical experiences is that at the end, there is a great emptiness. Images of God, voices of God, are all delusions and idols. God as one has imagined Him simply no longer exists. He has been entirely internalized. So the double-mindedness is over. The ability to have an internal dialogue with this Other is gone. Both Saint Teresa and Saint Therese talk about prayer turning into simply silence, resting on some inchoate sense of God. But finally, even that sense evaporates. Then there is no inner Other, nor any sense of an outer God in Heaven. There is only One. All the drama and fireworks is over. There's no push or pull, no ought or should. No Law. No sin. No guilt.

Faith is not meant to be eternal. Nor is hope. Only Love endures. But with no sense of the Presence of this Other, there is no One to love or to be loved by. One must simply act from love. If one's theology insists that this is a defect, then this state will be experienced as painful, as it apparently was in Mother Teresa's case. But I think it's painful because the endpoint of mystical prayer has been covered over in the western tradition. Those who reach it think they have gone astray, and they keep silence to avoid scandalizing or harming others.

Perhaps it is the providence of God that Mother Teresa's letters were not only not destroyed, as she intended, but are being published for all to see.

The truth is: The Son of Man is the Son of God, and there is no Other. There is no God to be found anywhere else but in one's own self and in the wounded selves of others. Jesus knew that and viscerally experienced it on the cross when he found Himself forsaken. The Law, the Prophets, and even faith itself are only means to this burned out but open-hearted end.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Make Love Not War

One last thought about war. Isn't it odd that most people feel vaguely ashamed of sex. Yet what's so shameful? Sex expresses love or desire, or even a bit of aggression, it creates pair bonds that hold families together, it relieves tension and stress, and it creates new life once in a while. Almost everyone needs and wants sex on some sort of regular basis. It feels good and gives mutual pleasure and usually no one gets hurt. Yet it is a source of shame.

While war, which kills and maims and brutalizes, is a source of pride.

Men are expected to be proud of their brave deeds killing other people, and to blush in shame over the fact that they got naked with a person they love.

Something has gone badly amiss.

War, what is it good for?

I am reading Flags of Our Fathers, written by a son about his father and 5 other men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. His description of the battle of Iwo Jima is extremely vivid and detailed--descriptions of men literally cut in half by bullets, the top half of a body standing upright in the sand, and the incredible number of men killed, more Americans in a few days than in the entire Iraq War so far.

One of the things that struck me is the extreme youth of the "men" who were fighting. I always thought that calling them "our boys" was a kind of odd thing, but in fact, they were boys, most of them Kristen's age, many of them younger. Too young to drink, too young to vote, too young to marry, but old enough to see unspeakable horror (flamethrowers used to burn men alive in front of their eyes, buddies with their guts in their hands, heads rolling from bodies). What must it have done to the survivors?

I wondered about the eagerness and willingness of so many young men to volunteer in WW2, but a little thinking about the great Depression makes it a little more understandable. A kid who was 18 in 1942 was born in 1924 and was 5 years old when the stock market crashed. His entire childhood was spent seeing his father and uncles struggle to find work. His family probably could barely afford to feed him, and the odds of going to college or starting a career must have looked pretty grim. Then along comes Uncle Sam, offering steady work and prestige--become a man, save the world, be a hero! After watching his father's humiliating struggle to stay afloat, this must have looked like a great opportunity. And for many young men, it really was. 18 and 19 year old kids were given heavy equipment to operate, tanks and trucks and even airplanes. And thousands of excess workers were killed during the war, so that those who came back intact really did have a much brighter future than their elders ever had.

An article in this month's Harpers Magazine discusses whether war has now become obsolete. It speaks of war as a cultural choice, not a part of human nature. Human beings have to breathe and eat and have sex, but they don't have to wage war. One of the oddities of the viewpoint in Flags of Our Fathers is that it partakes of the WW2 opinion that the Japanese fought unfairly. It is rather striking that the Japanese are pictured as barbarians because they refused to surrender and were willing to fight to the last man and to undertake suicide attacks. This struck American soldiers as an unfair, unsporting position.

The fact that there is such a difference of opinion as to how the game of war ought to be played makes it clear that it really is a cultural construct. The Americans didn't think they were playing dirty pool when they used tanks of gasoline to send sheets of fire into a position where they knew Japanese soldiers were hiding. But they were horrified by the fact that the Japanese didn't need the assurance that at least some of them would come back from a mission alive. The Japanese also committed many atrocities--mistreating prisoners, whom they believed to be shameful cowards because they had surrendered. But while the Japanese were cruel to individual soldiers and apparently to captured cities in China and elsewhere, were they any crueler than the men who firebombed Tokyo and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is torture less cruel when done at a distance?

Is it really possible that the human race is beginning to reach the point at which wholesale war such as the American Civil War, WW1 and WW2, in which millions died, no longer seems supportable? The war in Iraq is really notable for the very small number of Americans killed (and probably the number of Iraqis killed is relatively insignificant compared to say Russia in WW2). And yet large numbers of Americans oppose this war. Imagine if we were losing this number of men, not in years but in days. Would anyone support such a cause?

Sure, radical Islam would like to attack us, but there is no threat that Islam will mass millions of soldiers and actually invade our country. Islam doesn't have a military. It has martyrs. Rather a different concept. And it is clear to the rest of the world that Islam is attempting to live in the past, in an imaginary 12th century golden age or something. It may nip at our heels and cause some trouble, but it's a far cry from the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Or the United States or Great Britain.

The only country in the entire world today that actually contemplates using military force to invade and pillage other countries is the United States. And even our appetite for such adventures seems to be waning. Young men (and women) of today really do have better options than 17 year old children of the depression had. The propaganda that it is sweet and lovely to die for one's country is slowly losing its hold on our imagination.

Perhaps like slavery and child labor and wife beating, war will gradually come to be seen by almost everyone as immoral and self-defeating. It can't happen too soon.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Putting 2 and 2 together

In a previous post, I wondered about why the WTC buildings pulverized into dust rather than collapsing into big chunks of concrete and rebar. And I pondered the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Now it occurs to me that the way that bridge collapsed provides further evidence that something other than gravity brought down the WTC.

The I-35W bridge was approximately 64 feet above the river below. That's the equivalent of 5 to 6 stories high. And when concrete and steel fall that far, it remained almost entirely intact. It fell in huge chunks, and it did not turn to dust at all. Obviously the World Trade Center is much higher--110 floors and 1368 feet in all. (12 feet per floor. But the individual floors fell onto the floor below, pancaking, as we are told. So each floor was falling only 12 feet at a time. When a slab of concrete falls 12 feet, it does not crumble to dust. It falls in maybe 2 or 3 or 6 large chunks. And then the next floor falls, again only 12 feet, and there is more weight and there would be more fracturing, and so on. (And it seems certain that fire, no matter how hot, would not turn steel and concrete to fine powder either.)

If the powder occurred at the ground level, after the top floor had jounced down 109 times, breaking up more and more as it went, then perhaps we could credit that the effect of gravity had crumbled the top floors to dust. But in the pictures, we can see clouds of dust roiling out of the building long before it reaches the ground. The building vanished before our eyes and was reduced to a fine powder.

We now know for certain that chunks of concrete remain intact when they fall 6 stories down. Let's assume that these large slabs fell another 6 stories. Would they be talcum-like dust yet? No? Another 6 or 12 stories? Would they even be brick size chunks? Remember, we saw with our own eyes this week that after the first 6-story fall, the slabs of concrete remain almost 100% intact.

We also know that human beings are not broken into tiny bits by such a fall either. Almost everyone survived a 60 foot fall. And we know from the space shuttle and from accidents in which parachutes fail to open that human bodies can fall not only 1300 feet but 10 times that, 13,000 feet, and not disintegrate. (In fact, people have *survived* falls from airplanes without a parachute!) Now of course, a human being standing on the 50th floor of the WTC is about to be hit by 60 floors of concrete before falling the final 50 floors down, so of course, we would expect any human remains to be crushed and mangled, perhaps beyond recognition. But we would not expect that body to be vaporized or turned to dust.

So I am forced to wonder if the WTC was blown apart by something other than fire and gravity.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Good for the Economy

I have been thinking about the collapsed bridge in the Twin Cities, and the fact that the cost of maintaining our crucial infrastructure seems so expensive that it is out of reach or not politically feasible.

Given that a country has a finite amount of tax revenue to spend, it seems obvious to me that when it is spent on one thing, it is not available to spend on something else. (Of course, the amount of tax revenue available is adjustable, simply by growing the economy and/or raising tax rates. But realistically, it's not easy to squeeze more money out of taxpayers, and being anti-tax and anti-government is a kind of religion in the United States since at least the time of Ronald Reagan.)

So the easy and obvious assumption is that every dollar spent on the military in general and the war in Iraq in particular is one dollar that is unavailable not only for touchy-feely things like education and health care but also harder core things like highways and bridges.

And yet there is a common belief that "war is good for the economy." How can this be? Well, they tell us, war creates jobs, spurs spending, money is transferred from the government (which got it from taxes of course) to corporations, and these corporations then hire workers and pay them wages, and that all this is economic growth. And in a way, I suppose it is. But if the government can create jobs and strengthen the economy by spending money, why would it do so better spending it on tanks and planes that will be used up in a war than it would spending it on roads and bridges right here at home (or schools, or health care, or whatever you care to imagine, museums or monuments)? It appears to my naive eyes that there is no positive benefit to spending government money (ie taxes) on military equipment. And it further appears that once the money is spent, it matters a lot whether that money has gone for something that is durable and will contribute to further economic growth, rather than something that has no real use to our citizens.

If buying airplanes and helicopters Humvees and then using them up is the road to a strong economy, would it be beneficial to build such equipment and just blow them up in our own desert in Nevada? Certainly everyone would agree that buying equipment and materials and then destroying it so that you can build and buy more is a huge waste of taxpayers money.

And surely everyone would agree that a working bridge or highway is of more use to us than a bunch of ruined and used up military equipment. (It's also more use than a bunch of functioning military equipment for that matter.)

So how is war helpful to the economy? The old-fashioned reason for war was to acquire booty. A more modern purpose is to acquire land or resources. If you gain something tangible from the war, such as access to resources (oil, for example), then the cost of warfare may be offset by the expected gain. (And of course, if someone else is trying to take away your liberty or your resources or land, then you fight not to gain something but to keep from losing something.)

Apart from some expected gain if you win a war, war can only hurt the overall economy. Taxing people and then using the taxes to pay them to build materials which are then used for non-productive purposes is a losing game. (If it's not, then why not just tax people and pay them to build materials and then throw the products away. Clearly, while this would increase employment, it's like the New Deal make-work projects only worse. At least the New Deal built hiking paths and wrote books and so forth.)

The overall principle is no different than it would be for the economy of a household. If I spend my money on remodeling my house, then when I'm done, I have a more valuable and usable house. If I spend it on buying materials that will make me more productive (such as a car or a computer or education) then I increase my earning power. If I spend my money on things that are not of lasting value (such as vacations or gambling or fashion) then when I'm done, I have less money and no greater ability to be productive. This is what military spending amounts to. While there may be some beneficial side effects (maybe some antsy young men get trained in some skill or maybe some new technology is invented), the bottom line of military spending is that it is throwing money away. And spending on infrastructure (or education or health or public works) is investing that some money in something of long-term value to the citizens whose money it is.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


I am always amazed when I consider what a wealth of blessings have been left to us by those who went before us. Think of how much money it took to build the interstate highway system, the NY subway, the thousands of public libraries and public schools. All we have to do is maintain them. I look at the library on my campus, and the thousands of volumes of books still there that some other taxpayers provided for us. Now, it is up to us to add the new volumes that make it a usable collection, and we balk at it.

The words "crumbling infrastructure" just took on new urgency with the collapse of a major bridge in a major city. The collapse of levees in New Orleans was of course an even bigger disaster, but we could comfort ourselves that this was some kind of 100 year flood, an act of God that could not be anticipated. But when bridges have a series of reports indicating that they are in bad shape, and nothing is done, it is our own fault. Our parents paid taxes to build these things. If we don't want to go back to the day of ferry boats and dirt roads, we have to pay whatever it takes to maintain our physical infrastructure.

Business people cry about taxes, but the infrastructure those taxes support is what makes their generation of wealth possible. There are smart people in the backwaters of Brazil too, but without good infrastructure (and a good legal system), ideas and hard work won't make you rich. Everyone pays taxes so that everyone can live better. And when we don't our infrastructure inevitably falls apart.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Credibility and Conspiracy Theories

The concept of "Conspiracy Nuts" began after the assassination of Kennedy, when anyone who didn't accept the findings of the Warren Commission could safely be written off as a Conspiracy Nut.

The same brush-off has been resurrected to deal with questions about what happened on 9/11. And perhaps both "conspiracies" are a product of the same mind set. Perhaps if we took any event that is reported in great detail and subjected each detail to careful and critical scrutiny, we would begin to doubt our own existence.


Nevertheless, I have some unanswered questions which lead me to doubt the official conspiracy story. (Keep in mind that the official story involves a conspiracy involving dozens of people on several continent and a series of amazing coincidences.)

So here are my wonderings.

The first thing that strikes me is the small number of people on all 4 of the planes that crashed that day. I have flown on a number of occasions before and after 9/11, and for at least 20 years it has been extremely unusual for there to be more than a handful of empty seats on any commercial flights in this country. Airlines simply cannot stay in business if they fly half empty flights coast to coast on a regular basis. In 2006, the percentage of seats filled on average was around 80%.

The planes that crashed on 9/11 each had between 181 to 224 seats available.

Flight 11 (Boston to LA) had 76 passengers and 5 hijackers (=81 passengers) and at least 100 empty seats

Flight 175 (Boston to LA) had 56 passengers (including the hijackers) and at least 125 empty seats.

Flight 77 (DC to LA) had 53 passengers + 5 hijackers (=58 passengers)and at least 128 empty seats.

Flight 93 (Newark to San Francisco) had 37 passengers (including 4 hijackers) and about 144 empty seats.

Think about the likelihood of 4 flights, on a beautiful fall morning, leaving at a convenient hour and traveling between major coastal cities being so empty. When is the last time you've gotten on a commercial flight and 3 or 4 empty seats for each passenger? I haven't seen fill rates like that since the 1970s!

Did the terrorists mercifully choose half-empty flights to minimize the number of deaths? Was there some other reason that the flights they were on were eerily empty? I don't have an answer, but this does strike me as a surprising coincidence.

The other big question in my mind is why the WTC buildings not only collapsed, but exploded into a cloud of dust. When I saw the buildings come down on live tv, my first thought was, Oh my God, it's like Columbine, they had planted explosives in there!

Now I have some doubts whether that would have been possible, because apparently it takes a lot of manpower and a lot of time to wire buildings for demolition. Perhaps it was done, but I'm inclined to think it wasn't. But is it possible that some other mechanism was used? I read a website about the possibility of some sort of high-energy lasar type systems that the military has created.

It is hard for me to believe that layers of concrete and steel pancaking onto one another would literally disintegrate to such an extent that no bodies were found but only tiny fragments. By way of comparison, after the Challenger blew up in midair and crashed into the ocean, the shuttle was found nearly intact in the ocean and all the bodies were recognizable as being still belted into their seats. That space shuttle was a lot higher up than a tall building, and yet in their fall to earth they didn't vaporize. And that was an actual explosion, not a "collapse."

There are many other loose ends, but these two questions, based on commonsense observations, put me in the Conspiracy Nut category.